Licensed to Fail: ‘Outdated’ salmon farm licensing system comes under fire from all sides

Noteworthy reveals internal concerns the Department of the Marine did not take sufficiently tough action over potential licence breaches by Ireland’s largest salmon operator.

By Niall Sargent

“ATLANTIC SALMON IS the pinnacle for me of this wondrous journey.”

This wondrous journey into the “story and mythology” of salmon began at the age of five for Mark Boyden as he developed a keen interest in freshwater snorkeling and has led him to direct the Coomhola Salmon Trust, a small research and education facility in Co Cork.

Along the way he has gone on “sea to source pilgrimages” in salmon-rich countries and raced from the Beara Peninsula to Dublin Airport to deliver “specially prepared boxes of salmon eggs” of rare Rhine salmon to awaiting conservationists to repopulate the river in Germany.

He is also acutely aware of the growth of salmon farms in Bantry Bay, where hundreds of thousands of salmon may be enclosed in pens at any one time, compared to the 27 salmon he maintains at his facility.

He has voiced his opposition to Mowi – the world’s largest salmon farm operator – receiving a licence to set up a large salmon farm site at Shot Head in Bantry Bay, held up for a decade now.

“The whole thing of just having that number of fish in a small confined area is a concern in its potential for disease and how these might spread to wild fish,” he said. 

Tony Lowes, a director of the environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment, who lives on the Beara Peninsula, thinks there is good reason to be alarmed due to concerns raised by the Department of the Marine (DAFM) over operations at several of Mowi’s sites.

As part of our investigation examining the potential impacts of salmon farming in Irish water, we also closely examined concerns raised in relation to Mowi’s operations, as the largest salmon farming operator in Ireland.

Using Freedom of Information (FOI) and Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) requests, we pieced together concerns raised in internal State reports to find out what the authorities are doing to ensure rules and regulations are being followed by Mowi, as well as other companies licensed to operate salmon farms in Irish waters.

 We can reveal: 

  • 22 salmon farms – including 12 Mowi farms – have expired licences and no environmental assessments in line with EU law, in some cases for over a decade. This is allowed under State rules implemented in 2009 that were meant to be a short-term fix to a long-term licensing problem.
  • The Department has warned Mowi about potential breaches of licence conditions for overstocking and excess harvesting at several farms, with potentially serious environmental impacts, according to records released.
  • Although expert staff recommended the revocation of licences in each case, the Department decided on a strategy of altered licence conditions in all but one case.  It explained that the decisions “were arrived at following detailed consideration and review of the submissions made and all relevant information available”.
  • Mowi has also been found to be in repeated breach of its wastewater discharge licence at a salmon hatchery site in Co Donegal over the past decade.
  • Since 2001, several salmon farms have failed to send annual surveys to monitor impacts on the marine environment, with no enforcement action taken. 

While Mowi was not prepared to comment on the specific concerns raised, a spokesperson for the company said that it was ranked as the “most sustainable animal protein producer in the world” by the Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index last year. 

“Mowi Ireland is committed to producing more food from the ocean in a sustainable way, hence our commitment to organic salmon production in addition to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council environmental and social sustainability principles,” they said. 

These achievements, they added, represent an “overwhelming endorsement” of the high standards the company adheres to, with stock welfare and the highest standards of sustainable production “of paramount importance” to the company.

“Our greatest resource is obviously the environment – which [we] have depended on for our continued success for more than 41 years,” they said.

In part two, out yesterday, we examined concerns with the key impacts on the marine environment from salmon farming. In part one, we revealed that the State has granted licences allowing salmon farms to cull small numbers of protected seals.


Mowi is the largest Atlantic salmon producer in the world Mowi is the largest Atlantic salmon producer in the world
Source: Maria Delaney/Noteworthy

Following in the footsteps of the successful Norwegian industry that rose in the 1970s, Ireland’s salmon farms began to blossom in the mid to late ‘80s. In order to set up their business, salmon farm operators must apply for a fish farming or aquaculture licence to operate in Ireland.

This is required for both hatcheries – freshwater sites where salmon are raised to young adults – and for sea farms where the young salmon known as smolts mature in large circular pens in bays before harvesting.

Salmon farming is congregated into a few areas along our west coast – Bantry Bay and Kenmare Bay in the south; bays in Connemara and Clew Bay in the west; and Donegal Bay, Mulroy Bay and Lough Swilly in Co Donegal.

Today, the majority of these areas also have protected status as important nature sites that form part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network. Any salmon farm in or near these areas must undergo an environmental assessment – known as an appropriate assessment – to examine all potential impacts on the species and habitats for which the areas have protected status.

Even if farms are outside protected areas, “intensive fish farming” falls under the EU’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive as a sector that requires assessment if the State deems the activity is likely to have a significant effect due to its size, nature or location.

The Department of the Marine (DAFM) told us that, apart from some very limited exceptions such as licences for research purposes, an EIA is required for salmon farms and that licence applications “cannot be considered in its absence”.

The EIA process is thorough and also covers a range of social issues such as the impact of traffic to and from a site, visual and noise pollution, as well as health impacts on the general population.

Poor track record

Ireland has a poor track record, however, when it comes to aquaculture assessments and we have been taken to task by the European Commission on this issue.

In 2007, the European Court of Justice ruled that Ireland had breached EU environmental law by failing to put in place a system for data collection, definition of scientific interests and adequate assessment of aquaculture licensing applications in protected nature areas.

In response to this judgment, Ireland agreed on a roadmap with the European Commission under which we would carry out appropriate assessments of all our protected coastal sites with aquaculture farms so as to better inform any future decision to grant or renew licences.

As this would take some time to carry out, involving multi-year data collection and seabed mapping, and due to the fact that many aquaculture licences were due to soon expire at the time, it was agreed that Ireland would temporarily introduce rules to ensure farms could continue to operation until any licence renewal process was completed.

These rules were introduced in the Fisheries Amendment Act under Section 19A(4). Despite the proposed short-term nature of this rule, Section 19A(4) remains intact following a long backlog of aquaculture licences to process.

Farms operating without licences

Based on licence information released by the Department of the Marine, as of April this year, 22 salmon farms are currently operating with expired licences and without environmental impact assessments having been carried out.

Our analysis shows that, of these 22 farms – 12 of which are associated with Mowi – eight farms have been operating for between 10 and 15 years as they wait for their licences to be renewed. A further 10 have been waiting between eight and 10 years since they applied for renewal. When granted, licences last for a period of 10 years. 

In a statement, the Department said that it’s focus since 2008 has been on the shellfish licensing backlog that has now been “effectively eliminated”. It said that it is now “actively engaged” in the elimination of the salmon licensing backlog. 

The Department said that it has now received a number of Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) or Environmental Impact Assessment Reports (EIAR) from salmon farms and that all are due by 30 June 2021. 

At this point, the Department will evaluate the records received and make a decision as to whether the farms should be granted new licences, it said. 

To view a searchable version of this table, click here.

Criticism of the licensing situation has come from all sides, including the industry itself. In 2014, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) said that the licensing regime was the key barrier to developing the aquaculture sector, calling the system “outdated in attitude at the highest levels”.

Mowi has expressed similar issues, with its legal representative stating in a February 2017 submission in a licence appeals case that the current system is “overly-prescriptive” and “require[s] modernisation”.

The submission calls for four-month deadlines on decisions and for environmental impact statements to only be required for the renewal of a licence where there would be significant changes in environmental impacts as a result of a change in the licensed activity.

A Mowi spokesperson confirmed to Noteworthy that it “shares the concerns of all stakeholders” that the licensing system “isn’t fit- for-purpose”. It said that this was recognised by the State when it commissioned a report to review the regulation of the entire aquaculture sector published in May 2017. 

“We are still awaiting the implementation of the findings of that report which relate to finfish, in spite of repeated promises to grow the blue economy and Irish aquaculture by a succession of Governments,” Mowi said.

“Notwithstanding, we are hopeful and confident that recent changes within the Department bode well for a long-overdue improvement in our licensing regime.”

The Department said that the licensing process is “complex and detailed”, including public and statutory consultation. It said that, “despite allocation of considerable resources to the elimination of the backlog”, it is not possible to “definitively state” when the backlog will be fully eliminated.

To view a searchable version of this chart, click here.

Environmental concerns over licensing system

Environmental groups, the courts and the European Commission, however, have taken on a separate set of concerns with the licensing system, namely, the potential for environmental impacts from the farms to go unchecked.

The issue was recently commented on, in a case opposing permission for a salmon farm to abstract freshwater from a lake to treat disease, by High Court judge Ms Justice Niamh Hyland, who, as a senior counsel, was regularly engaged by the State in environmental cases.

The aquaculture licence for the farm expired in 2012 and Ms Justice Hyland stated in her January 2021 judgement that counsel for the applicant were “rightly deeply critical” of the Department for the “extraordinary eight-year delay” in determining the licence application.

“Assuming that licences are granted in 2021, that means that the fish farms in question will effectively have been treated as being licensed for a period of nine years without any regulatory body considering the terms of the licence and imposing any necessary controls,” she said.

Ms Justice Niamh Hyland - High Court judgement, Jan 2021 - It could potentially have very adverse environmental consequences in that it allows fish farms to operate on the basis that they are licensed but without any appropriate controls.

The European Commission has also taken issue, according to an email sent to the campaign group Galway Bay Against Salmon Cages (GBASC) in April 2020 about the continued use of the S19A(4) rule.

In the email, seen by Noteworthy, the Commission states that it “remains concerned that the review of the existing activities has been too slow. It was originally understood that the process would be much faster and that section 19A(4) was not intended to have a long shelf life”.

From the Commission’s point of view, the letter said, the “assessment of existing permits for aquaculture should be sped up and section 19A(4) removed”. In a statement, the Department said the provisions of Section 19A(4) are “compliant” with the roadmap agreed with the Commission.

Direct impact of licensing limbo

Another group opposing open sea salmon farming, Salmon Watch Ireland (SWI), made an official complaint to the Commission in June 2020, arguing that Ireland had failed to comply with EU law by allowing farms to continue to operate without environmental assessment.

It said that S19A(4) is “permitting marine salmon farms with expired licences, awaiting renewal, to continue in operation indefinitely”. This, it said, “has enabled salmon farms to remain in an unauthorised operational status without any valid licence in force to permit their continuation”.

SWI’s John Murphy, a keen angler since the 1980s, said that the group is still awaiting feedback from the Commission on its complaint.

“The government here negotiated a deal with the EU where they would be allowed a small period of time… to get all the factors examined in these bays from the point of view of the Habitats Directive,” he said. “We’re now 14 years down the road.”

This can have serious ramifications for the marine environment, according to Murphy, as it has caused not just a political but also a legal headache for the State about what action it can take if farms are suspected to haved caused any environmental impacts.

Tony Lowes of Friends of the Irish Environment is of a similar mind. The biggest problem, he said, is in legal terms. “When the licence expires… that licence is dead, it does not exist, it has expired, it does not leave a shadow or a trace. So you cannot amend that licence,” he said.

An additional issue is the lack of graduated penalties for breaches of conditions built into the older licences. Lowes said that this makes it incredibly difficult for the Department to take action when companies are found to be overstocking fish or harvesting higher numbers than allowed.

“We’re locked into this position where we can’t amend the licences [and] we can’t control what’s going on, we can’t discipline them,” he said.

Without penalties, Lowes said that the only option is to revoke a farm’s permission to continue to operate under Section 19A(4), a step that he said is difficult for the Department to take as the decision is immediately open to legal challenge by the companies.

“It’s critical that the licensing system be modernised so we can properly assess what’s happening and grade the penalties to ensure enforcement without this suicidal alternative that we’re presented with. That seems to be the core of the thing,” he said.

This very issue has presented itself in several cases examined by the Department of the Marine in recent years involving Mowi – the world and Ireland’s largest salmon farming company.

Tony Lowes (c) outside the High Court during the group’s recent challenge of State climate plans. Tony Lowes (c) outside the High Court during the group’s recent challenge of State climate plans.
Source: Niall Sargent/Noteworthy

 Overstocking concerns at multiple farms

Mowi Ireland is part of Mowi Group – the world’s largest producer of farmed salmon – and is responsible for around 80% of Ireland’s production, all of it organic, sold under the company’s ‘Irish Organic Salmon Co’ label. 

The company had a turnover of €66 million in 2019, taking in €15 million in profit after tax. As it has a dominant role in the industry, it avails of enhanced bilateral coordination with the Department, meeting with it on numerous occasions over the years.

It has also been in hot water with the Department in recent years over concerns that it had overstocked salmon and harvested higher levels of fish than allowed for under conditions in its licences.

According to an October 2019 briefing paper prepared for the then-Minister of the Marine Michael Creed ahead of a meeting with Mowi’s CEO, the Department was “conducting a formal examination of possible breaches of licence conditions” at farms between 2013 and 2017.

Records were released to Noteworthy by the Department on its investigations into Deenish in Co Kerry, as well as Mowi’s Anny Point (Lough Swilly) and Lough Altan (inland near Errigal) sites in Co Donegal and its Inishfarnard site in Co Cork.

It was only in the Deenish case, however, where Mowi’s subsidiary Silver King was found to have harvested double their permitted annual 500 tonnes of salmon in 2016, that the Minister discontinued the company’s entitlement to operate its licence under Section 19(A)4. 

We asked Mowi questions in relation to these cases. The company did not respond to the specific questions and did not take up our offer to carry out an interview with a representative of the company on the issues raised.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said that it “shares the concerns of all stakeholders in that the licensing system in Ireland isn’t fit-for-purpose” and that it is “committed to producing more food from the ocean in a sustainable way”.

It added that it was ranked as the most sustainable animal protein producer in the world by the 2020 Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index that assesses farmed fish producers on environmental, social and governance risks. 

The Department said that the decisions made in all the cases “were arrived at following detailed consideration and review of the submissions made and all relevant information available to the Department”.

To view a high-res version of this network map, click here.

 ‘Substantial commercial benefit’ 

In the Deenish case, data collected from the company during an annual inspection by DAFM’s marine engineering division showed a total harvest of 1,109 tonnes in 2016 – 121% in excess of what is permitted.

In a submission to the Minister in July 2018, John Quinlan, a principal officer in the Aquaculture and Foreshore Management Division of DAFM, stated that the over-harvesting likely “resulted in substantial commercial benefits for the operation”.

Quinlan also raised concern that the rate of harvesting of the salmon could have caused environmental impacts by virtue of excess effluent discharge during the harvest of the fish.

The company has firmly contested that there was a breach of harvesting limits or effluent issues as it transferred live salmon from the farm to Castletownbere quay where it said the harvesting occurred.

A strongly-worded letter from then Mowi CEO Alf-Helge Aarskog to the Department in May 2019 stated that the company “do not accept” that the decision to discontinue the licence at Deenish was lawful.

In the letter, released to Noteworthy under Freedom of Information (FOI), Aarskog said Mowi had instructed its Irish solicitors to “prepare the necessary legal papers to challenge” the decision.

The company subsequently brought a legal challenge and the case is now before the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board (ALAB). As the case remains the subject of ongoing legal proceedings, DAFM said that it “would not be appropriate to make any further comment on the matter at this time”.

Crucial to Mowi’s case is the argument that there is “no express provision” that allows the Minister to bring an end to the statutory entitlement contained in section 19A(4). Similar arguments have been put forward by the company in the other cases, according to records released.

In all cases, both before and after the Deenish decision, however, the Department did not take such strong action, despite repeated warnings from John Quinlan that failure to act could have serious ramifications for the licensing regime in Ireland.

Instead, the Department, concerned about difficulties in proving certain aspects of its case, over the proportionality of the proposed sanctions, and due to legal complexities in respect of the licensing regime, adopted a strategy of revised licence conditions.

Salmon pens at Mowi’s Lough Altan hatchery in Co Donegal Salmon pens at Mowi’s Lough Altan hatchery in Co Donegal
Source: Maria Delaney/Noteworthy

Lough Altan hatchery

The earliest case of suspected overstocking was at the company’s Lough Altan hatchery site in Co Donegal.

Data gathered during an inspection in December 2014 showed the site produced over 2.9 million young salmon, or smolts, in 2014 – a stocking rate 17% above the annual limit of 2.5 million – a key condition as part of its aquaculture licence granted in 2007.

In a submission in July 2016, Quinlan recommended that the Minister revoke the licence as the apparent overstocking was a “significant breach” of the licence condition.

“It can be reasonably stated therefore that the Company knowingly breached the terms and conditions of its licence to a substantial degree for clear commercial gain,” Quinlan said.

“To do nothing,” he warned, “is not an option which is desirable or, indeed, available in any meaningful way to the Department in this case”.

Likewise, he said, action such as a “letter of admonishment” would be “tantamount to doing nothing” in the eyes of both the industry and the public, and would “seriously undermine the integrity of the regulatory process”.

In his assessment, Quinlan also argued that the apparent overstocking “can be expected to have a negative impact on the environment as a result of greater intensification of smolts and increased discharges from the facility”.

Discharge licence issues in Co Donegal

In his submission, Quinlan stated Donegal County Council advised the Department that Mowi has “been consistently in breach of their discharge licence conditions, especially in the 2nd half of the year, when fish biomass reaches a certain critical point”.

In the email from May 2016, seen by Noteworthy and originally released to Friends of the Irish Environment under AIE, Dr Joe Ferry, the Executive Scientist at the Council told DAFM that the Council had “persistently asked” Mowi for an action plan to address the problems.

He said that Mowi had “cited economic reasons for not implementing the scale of treatment facilities which their current production rates would demand in order to achieve compliance” with the licence and said that the Council would “welcome” any decision to limit production capacity at the site.

Data released by the Council indicates that allowable discharge levels were exceeded on over 30 occasions between 2011 and 2020 at the site dating back to at least 2011.

The main issue identified is with ammonia, with a Council email to Mowi – then called Marine Harvest Ireland – in April 2013 stating that monitoring data as far back as 2005 to 2007 “demonstrate[s] that compliance with the ammonia condition was problematic”.

Ammonia can be highly toxic to fish in receiving water bodies if not treated before release into the environment and has been identified as a key issue in freshwater hatchery operations.

‘Increased nutrient’ downstream of hatchery

Lough Altan is the source for the Tullaghobegley River, a small yet productive salmon and sea trout fishery popular with anglers

A letter sent by the Council to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 2015 stated that a full survey of the river indicated an “increase in nutrients, particularly ammonia and orthophosphate, downstream of the hatchery”.

Increased phosphate levels can present a risk to normal functioning of river ecosystems, potentially leading to excessive growth of algae or other vegetation.

Although the company provided the Council with an effluent plant maintenance plan, as well as plans and action to improve the operation of treatment plants and sludge removal, the Council detected numerous cases of breaches of levels.

This includes September 2017 when the Council noted “there was fungus in the river and a very heavy green growth in the river from the discharge location downstream for quite some distance”.

Despite warnings over the years that it would recommend prosecution under the Water Pollution Act for repeated ammonia breaches, the Council has only issued warning notices to the company. The latest ammonia level breaches were recorded in September 2020 and March 2021.

When asked why it did not proceed to stronger enforcement measures as it outlined to the company following repeated breaches, Donegal County Council said that it has “taken enforcement action in the form of issuing warning letters to the operator”.

It said that it has sought to engage with Mowi to “bring about improvement in licence compliance over many years”. It added that “steady progress has been achieved and considerable investment has been made over the years” that it hopes to build on in the future.

We also asked Mowi questions in relation to the discharge licence breaches but the company did not respond directly to the questions raised. Instead, a company spokesperson said “Mowi Ireland is committed to producing more food from the ocean in a sustainable way”.

A spokesperson said that Mowi could “double our workforce to 600 in rural coastal locations and invest €20 million in new and existing sites to produce a protein-rich, food in a very sustainable way with minimal carbon output, but we cannot secure licences”. 

“In total, we have more than 30 applications just sitting there, most of them have been ‘in the system’ for more than 10 years. In Scotland, the average time to process a licence is 18 months and their industry is worth more than £1 billion annually to the economy. Here we are producing less fish than we did 18 years ago,” they added.

Several other farms have also faced issues with discharge licences, including salmon conservation facilities run by state bodies. These cases can be seen in the table here.

To view a searchable version of this table click here.

 ‘Concerns about the recommendation’

Despite the concerns raised by DAFM’s Quinlan and Donegal County Council, the Department’s Assistant Secretary General Cecil Beamish said in a submission to the Minister in September 2016 that he had “concerns about the recommendation” to revoke the licence for several reasons, including that the case was the first recorded breach of the licence. 

He said that he was concerned that the revocation of the licence may not be proportional to “an apparent first offence” on a farm with a licence in place since 2007.  

In addition, he said that, while the company’s arguments were “in part rejected by the Department inspector”, it “cannot be easily discounted by the State”. 

Beamish recommended that the Minister consider amending the licence to “introduce a stronger real time monitoring of production” rather than revoke the licence that he said was in line with legal advice received by the Department.

This, he said, would be in the public interest as “it would avoid a similar situation arising again and coming to light after the fact by way of a post-inspection”.

Beamish sent his proposed recommendation to Quinlan, who responded in an email on 7 September 2016 to both Beamish and the Department’s Secretary General Aidan O’Driscoll that the evidence against Mowi is “overwhelming”, with “exhaustive legal advice” obtained on all aspects of the case.

John Quinlan, DAFM email on Lough Altan, Sept 2016 - The company sought and obtained fish movement consents from the Marine Institute for smolts... so the evidence is in fact overwhelming.

Quinlan stressed in his email that the case was important, with “potentially significant implications for the company and also for the Department’s licensing regime”. 

The strategy determined on by the Department, namely the recommendation to amend the licence was retained and accepted by the Minister in September 2016. The Department confirmed that Mowi has “complied with the updated requirements”. 

Noteworthy asked the Department if it wished to comment further on the decision in this case. It said the decision was “arrived at following detailed consideration and review of the submissions made and all relevant information available to the Department”.

Concerns in Bantry Bay

Soon after this, Quinlan also raised issue with Mowi’s Inishfarnard site in Bantry Bay as a Department inspection in June 2015 found that over 820,000 smolts were brought to the site in March 2014 from a hatchery. This is double the 400,000 allowed for in its licence.

At this stage, the company had been without a licence since 2007 and had sought review of its licence in 2010 to increase smolt stocking rates to 800,000. This was refused by the Department.

The Marine Engineering Division confirmed that the stocking levels “clearly represents a breach” of the licence. However, the company denied that it had overstocked with smolt.

In a submission to the Minister on 21 December 2016, Quinlan again recommended that the Minister revoke the right to operate under S19A(4).

He stressed that, following the recent case at Lough Altan, the company’s actions “cannot be considered a ‘once off’ transgression”.

He argued that it was “difficult to see” how amendments to licence conditions “could be seen as any form of sanction” against the company. “This course of action is not viable,” he said.

Assistant Secretary Beamish again recommended that the Minister amend the licence to set a cap on the number of smolts and to receive pre-notification of stock input to the site. This, he said, would “enable clear real time verification that fish input limits are being reflected”.

“It is undoubtedly an issue that the governing legislation does not provide for graduated sanctions,” he said

Beamish added that there was a “significant issue of proportionality about an action to close the farm” as there were no previous licence breaches at the site and due to concerns that there is “at a minimum an element of uncertainty about the apparent breach”. 

The possibility of legal action also played into this decision. Beamish argued that, as the case hinged on “whether or not the State can prove that the fish inputted were ‘smolts’ and ‘only smolts”, it may be very hard to prove this case to the satisfaction of the Court if the company were to challenge it. 

Marine Institute fish movement data presented in Quinlan’s submission, however, showed that over 800,000 fish were moved to Inishfarnard between February and April 2014 from Lough Altan and Pettigo, two of Mowi’s hatcheries that are both licensed to produce smolts.

Still, in late January 2017, the Secretary General Aidan O’Driscoll sent a letter to Minister Creed recommending the proposed amendments even though he said that evidence of overstocking “seems clearcut”. The Minister agreed on 2 February with the proposed course.

When Noteworthy asked the Department if it wished to comment further, a spokesperson said the decision was “arrived at following detailed consideration and review of the submissions made and all relevant information available to the Department”.

The company subsequently appealed the proposed condition changes and has since been granted change of the condition to allow for stocking rates based on the weight or mass of live fish held at a particular time.

Lough Swilly - Large Salmon Farm (9) Salmon pens on Lough Swilly, Co Donegal
Source: Maria Delaney/Noteworthy

 ‘De facto anti-competitiveness measure’

In a further case at the company’s Anny Point farm on Lough Swilly, an EU protected site in Donegal used by various species of national and international importance, Mowi was found to have harvested an excess of 19.6% over the permitted limit of 1,000 tonnes in 2016.

Mowi disputed that it breached the licence terms and argued that there were no environmental impacts on the farm. This was disputed by Quinlan in a submission in July 2018 where he said the argument that there was no environmental impact “is a matter of perspective at best”.

John Quinlan, DAFM submission, Lough Swilly, July 2018 - It is axiomatic self-evident that an increase of 18-19% in the stock harvested from the site must increase the effluent discharge from the site.

Quinlan again strongly recommended discontinuing the company’s entitlement, stating that failure, or perceived failure, to enforce licence conditions would “provide an incentive for further non-compliance”, as well as amounting to “a de facto anti-competitiveness measure”.

Assistant Secretary Beamish told the Minister on 11 July 2018 that such a decision would “most likely be subject to legal challenge” and proposed a meeting with the Minister to “illuminate and explore the issues arising” in this case. 

No records of any meetings were provided to Noteworthy. When asked if any subsequent action was taken, the Department only said that the “position is as set out in the material already provided” through our FOI request.

An analysis of DAFM inspections of farms between 2018 and 2020 shows that potential overstocking or excess harvesting rates were identified on seven occasions at Mowi farms, including potential excess harvesting at Anny Point in 2017 and 2019.

When asked if any action has been taken in these cases, the Department said it has communicated with the farms and “emphasised the requirement to comply fully” with licence conditions.

Several other potential cases of overstocking were identified at farms run by other companies during this period. These cases can be seen in the table here. 

To view a searchable version of this table click here.

‘Mockery of the licensing system’

Following these cases, the Minister held a meeting with the CEO of Mowi in October 2019. The Minister was informed in a meeting briefing document “it is essential that operators functioning under Section 19A(4) of the legislation do not breach the terms and conditions of their previous licence”.

If they do so, the briefing notes states, “not only do they place their consent to operate in danger but they also place the ‘roadmap’ agreed with the EU Commission in danger”.

Ministerial briefing for meeting with MOWI, Oct 2019 - Removal of Section 19A4 would be catastrophic for the salmon farming industry.

Notes from the meeting in October 2019 show that the Minister stressed that he was “concerned that non-compliance by the company with licence conditions across a range of their sites would make the task of defending of the industry by the Department even more difficult”.

Salmon Watch Ireland’s John Murphy said he would agree with the sentiment stated by the Minister as, when licences have not been revoked or amended downwards, “it makes a mockery of the licensing system”.

The Department told us that it is “satisfied” that the current use of the provisions of Section 19A(4) “is appropriate” and that “work is ongoing and will continue” to reduce reliance on this rule as it works through the aquaculture licence backlog.

Failure to provide monitoring reports

One way to monitor for potential environmental impacts is through annual benthic monitoring that measures impacts on the seafloor beneath salmon pens from discharges from feed and fish faeces.

An analysis of Marine Institute audits released to us show that conditions on some Mowi farms did not meet the required environmental standards on 20 occasions between 2001 and 2020.

The main issues identified related to bacteria and excessive waste feed and the Marine Institute, in many instances, recommended that attention be paid to stocking densities. The company did not respond to specific questions on these issues.

In total, there were 39 occasions during this period that the Marine Institute viewed conditions to be unacceptable across all farms. These cases can be seen in the table here. 

Our analysis of Marine Institute audit results show that sites met the required environmental standards in 90% of reports. However, the data also shows that there has been just 67% reporting compliance since the introduction of the surveys in 2001.

Although the benthic survey protocol clearly states that all sites are subject to survey, only 439 of the required 673 surveys were provided since 2001, an issue repeatedly flagged by the Marine Institute in its audit reports to DAFM.

Yet, the Department told us that, to date, “no enforcement action has been taken” for non- compliance in relation to the submission of annual benthic monitoring surveys. It said that it is “actively engaged in securing necessary reports” from all salmon farm operators. 

To view an interactive version of this chart, click here.

New system ahead

A 2017 review of the aquaculture licensing system recommended a root-and-branch reform, including six-month time limits to determine licence applications, as well as more stringent enforcement proceedings for non-compliance with licence conditions.

The changes have yet to be implemented, yet would appear to be urgently required, according to the warnings from experts within the Department of the Marine itself.

As outlined in one of his submissions in December 2016, DAFM’s John Quinlan made it clear that the potential overturning of S19A(4) through legal action by NGOs “on the basis that it is not policed adequately by the State” would lead to “serious consequences” for the industry.

Salmon Watch Ireland’s legal complaint is still live with the European Commission and John Murphy said that, while the group has yet to hear from the EU body, the State is on warning.

“If this licensing process is to be regularised, we would have no issue going to any form, whether it be legal, European or whatever, to object to all these licences. We have informed the Department that we are quite willing to do that.”

Both Tony Lowes and Mark Boyden are still closely watching proceedings with Mowi’s planned facility in Shot Head in Bantry Bay, with Boyden hopeful of a decision that he said will benefit the bay and locals alike.

“I’m not a serial objector, I am a community activist. I’ve worked all my life to see that rural communities thrive but I’m not convinced that this is a way forward or is sustainable or holistic in any way.”


In part one of this investigation, we revealed that the State has granted licences allowing salmon farms to cull small numbers of protected seals.

In part two, we examined concerns with the key impacts on the marine environment from salmon farming. 


Troubled Waters project design featuring man maintaining a salmon farm

This investigation was carried out by Niall Sargent of Noteworthy. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers.

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